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Qualcomm to Take on Apple's Mac Processors With Nuvia CPU in 2023

Nov. 17, 2021
Qualcomm has serious ambitions in the personal computer market. Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon said the new chip due out in 2023 is “designed to set the performance benchmark for Windows PCs.”

Qualcomm plans to design a system-on-a-chip (SoC) for the personal computer market to take on Apple's M-series Mac processors and central processing units (CPUs) from AMD and Intel.

CTO James Thompson announced the plan for the new client processor at Qualcomm’s Investor Day, with the goal of shipping samples to customers within a year, ahead of moving into volume production in 2023. Qualcomm, long the world’s largest smartphone chip firm, is also promising to take the crown in “sustained performance and battery life” by designing a new general-purpose CPU core from the ground up for the PC.

Apple upended the semiconductor industry last year when it launched the first in its M-series of chips for laptops, with what was widely seen as an unparalleled combination of computing power and battery life. Apple raised the bar with the M1 “Pro” and M1 “Max” in its premium MacBook Pro laptops. They pack 10 CPU cores based on the 5-nm node from TSMC, supplemented by a wide range of other innovations. 

The San Diego, California-based company has serious ambitions for the future. Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon said the new chip due out in 2023 is “designed to set the performance benchmark for Windows PCs.”

The chip giant is leveraging the technology assets that it acquired from its $1.4 billion deal for Nuvia at the start of the year. It has tasked Nuvia's engineering team to design the next-generation CPU at the heart of the PC chip. Qualcomm said Nuvia’s expertise in designing CPUs would help boost the performance and power efficiency of its chips—the same characteristics that are vital to Apple’s M-series MacBook chips. 

Thompson said one of the weaknesses on Qualcomm’s technology roadmap was high-performance CPUs. But Qualcomm hopes Nuvia’s engineering prowess and IP will turn it into a stronger player in the PC market.

Nuvia was founded in 2019 by three ex-Apple employees—Gerard Williams, Manu Gulati, and John Bruno—who had previously worked on the consumer electronics giant's A-series chips used in iPhones and iPads. Williams was the lead chip architect at Apple for almost to a decade before departing to start Nuvia about three years ago. Gulati and Bruno both worked at Apple and Google before Nuvia.

Nuvia began in 2019 as a stealth startup working on high-performance Arm server CPUs. Under Qualcomm, it has pivoted to designing next-generation CPUs for other areas including mobile phones and PCs.

Qualcomm’s chip will use the same system-on-a-chip architecture as the M1, where all the different parts of a personal computer, including a graphics processing unit (GPU), are etched on a single slice of silicon. The smartphone chip giant said it also plans to scale its Adreno GPUs up to the performance level of a discrete graphics chip. Qualcomm said it is trying to bring desktop-class gaming performance to its future PC chip.

Qualcomm has struggled to win market share in personal computers with its Snapdragon 7C and 8C chips, and its partnership with Microsoft on the SQ1 and SQ2 chips in Surface laptops has had a limited impact.

Taking the performance crown from Apple and stealing market share out from under Intel and AMD will be a steep challenge for Qualcomm. Apple said the M1 “Pro” and M1 “Max” are already up to 70% faster than the M1 introduced only last year. The Silicon Valley giant has previously announced plans to phase out the Intel chips used in its personal computers for the last decade and a half in favor of its in-house chip designs.

Intel, which is also struggling to stop AMD from stealing market share, is striking back with its new hybrid architecture for PC CPUs, code named Alder Lake, which promises a big generational leap in performance.

Other technologies that it developed for phones could also help Qualcomm’s PC chips stand out from the crowd, including its integrated 5G modems, WiFi, Bluetooth, and video, audio, display, and camera engines.

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